For Brush Prairie native Daron Dean, the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day has prompted reflection on her own experience as a Black child growing up in Brush Prairie.
Dean, who graduated from Hockinson High School in 2009, was one of few Black students in the school district; even today, only 16 of the district’s 2,031 students identify as Black or African American.
“I don’t ever remember in elementary school having teachers read books that had a person of color as the main character, or having picture books where there were more than just white people portrayed,” said Dean, who now lives in Los Angeles.
Dean and her sister Olivia Trueblood, who graduated from Columbia River High School in 2005, are now using renewed energy around systemic racism in the United States to push their respective school district to do more to teach Black and brown history.
The two sisters have started Facebook groups, online petitions and have reached out or plan to reach out to their school boards to urge them to adopt a more inclusive curriculum that better reflects America’s populations of color.
“My skin color and experience and plights of my people are not being given enough attention,” said Trueblood, who also moved to Los Angeles after graduating. “I feel like we can’t leave them behind, can’t leave them left out.”
Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on his neck for nearly eight minutes has shined a new spotlight on how systems, including schools, are failing people of color. In the last two weeks, Clark County’s largest school districts, Vancouver and Evergreen Public Schools, have announced new equity initiatives to review policies and practices around race and other marginalized student groups.
Both districts announced they were hiring inclusion and equity directors, who will be responsible, in part, for reviewing district curriculum to ensure it reflects all students’ experiences. Failing to do can create “academic and emotional gaps” for students, said Marina Heitz, a fifth-grade dual language teacher at Vancouver’s Sarah J. Anderson Elementary School.
“If (students) are given a problem where they don’t understand the context, they’re at a disadvantage of not being able to fully understand the question,” said Heitz, who is also the incoming chair of the Vancouver Education Association’s equity committee.
Research shows coursework that reflects a district’s diverse student body can improve outcomes for students of color. A 2017 study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California Irvine found that students in an ethnic studies course saw improved attendance, higher grade point averages and an increase in overall credits earned.
Wendy Smith is a history teacher at Evergreen’s Heritage High School, and president of the Vancouver school board. As a teacher, Smith doesn’t rely on a single textbook; she provides her students with first-hand accounts from a variety of perspectives across American history, including from people of color.
When her students are learning about the Civil Rights era, for example, they review articles from The Crisis, the NAACP’s official journal. When discussing Japanese internment during World War II, they read interviews with internees.
“The story of America is the story of all of us,” Smith said. “I’m trying to get them to understand the American story is our story and all the different experiences that create that story.”
And while improving history coursework is an example of improving curriculum, Smith and Heitz say students need to see themselves reflected in all coursework, whether it’s story problems in math featuring people of color, or picture books that feature diverse characters. Heitz said students of color or students who speak a second language also need to be encouraged to celebrate their own identities in the classroom.
“I definitely try to make sure there are opportunities for my Spanish speakers during our Spanish times for them to show off their language, whether that’s through different speaking activities, learning about their culture,” she said. “We’re definitely allowing them to feel comfortable within their voice, their skin and their bodies.”
Sisters Dean and Trueblood are optimistic about the future for students at their respective high schools. Both say alumni have taken up the cause of improving curriculum, and an online petition by Dean’s group has garnered more than 300 signatures.
“People tend to forget that Black history and U.S. history, those things are interwoven throughout our entire history of the United States,” Dean said. “It should be taught like that.”
Katie Gillespie: 360-735-4517; email@example.com; twitter.com/newsladykatie